Racial Tensions Coming to a Boil

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Recent statistics detailing the racial disparities in Chattanooga schools have revealed what one researcher has called “educational apartheid.” Ken Chilton, an associate professor at Chattanooga State University, delivered his analysis of statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Pew Research Center in an address titled “State of Black Chattanooga” as part of a week of activities organized in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Chilton, the statewide average of college-ready students is 19 percent; at majority white schools the average is higher, with 20 percent at East Hamilton High and 41 percent at Signal Mountain High. Zero percent of students at Brainerd High and Howard School—both majority black schools—were deemed college ready, as reported by the Times Free Press.

Chilton also noted significant gaps in income and wealth between whites and blacks, as well as the comparatively higher rates of imprisonment and poverty of blacks in Chattanooga. Chilton concludes that “Inequality is the new normal.”  

Chilton’s findings come at a time when racial inequality is at the forefront of national debate. In Chattanooga, the Times Free Press reported that protesters marched on Saturday, Dec. 20 in peaceful protest against police brutality, state sanctioned violence, and racism.. Protesters clogged Market Street and Broad Street holding signs emblazoned with slogans like “Do I look suspicious?” and “This Stops Today,” while similar protests were held in Dalton, Ga. that afternoon. These local demonstrations took place in the context of nationwide responses to the non-indictments of white police officers Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., and Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island, N.Y., who were connected with the deaths of two unarmed black men.

YouTube video footage of Pantaleo keeping Eric Garner, a 400 pound asthmatic, in a chokehold—an illegal maneuver in New York—swept the internet in July 2014. In the footage, Garner cries “I can’t breathe!” several times before losing consciousness. The phrase has become one of the hashtags associated with recent protests. National media coverage swarmed on Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, when Wilson’s shooting of teenager Michael Brown in August ignited immediate unrest. According to social justice groups, including Chattanooga’s own Concerned Citizens for Justice (CCJ), these deaths are the result of systemic racism and are not isolated incidents. Protesters in cities all over the country have taken up the mantra “Black Lives Matter” in the hope of raising awareness of the criminal treatment of blacks.

Chattanooga’s own history of violence against blacks has deep roots. Particularly haunting are the Jim Crow era Walnut Street Bridge lynchings: the first was Alfred Blount, who was lynched in Feb. 1893, his body peppered with bullets, and Ed Johnson followed in March 1906. In both instances the men allegedly assaulted white women and and appeared before all-white juries. The mob behind Ed Johnson’s lynching was aided by Sheriff Joseph Shipp, who the United States Supreme Court found guilty in 1907 of contempt of court for his participation in Johnson’s lynching. According to the Tennessee State Museum, Shipp was sentenced to 90 days and returned to Chattanooga a hero.

In an article published on Sunday Jan. 18, David Cook of the Times Free Press decries the blank spaces in Chattanooga’s collective memory where Johnson and Blount’s stories should be. He writes, “If a plaque [on the Walnut Street Bridge] helps us cross the cultural bridge between racial amnesia and historical integrity, it might also help form black-white bonds that make racial violence less possible.”

According to the Chattanoogan, leaders of the CCJ stated at a press conference on Jan. 15 that 2015 will be a year of resistance. The CCJ join the cacophony of voices around the nation protesting on behalf of black lives destroyed by “police violence, gross educational and economic inequality, gentrification and displacement, criminalization and mass incarceration, or a multitude of other ways.” Last semester, Covenant hosted a panel on Ferguson that stressed the importance of grieving the lives that have been and are being lost, supporting our brothers and sisters as they grieve, and seeking reconciliation between all people.

Evangelical colleges like Seattle Pacific University, Westmont College, and Taylor University have all held protests of their own, making them what the Atlantic calls “unlikely allies.” Traditionally conservative in political orientation, some Christian colleges have departed from the stance of other right-wing Christian groups by citing this as an opportunity to fight against injustice. Wheaton College in Illinois has been the site of several “die-in” protests similar to those in major cities around the U.S. and students there claim their faith is what drives them to this form of activism.